Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat – an Antidote for Islamic Fundamentalism

by Norman Berdichevsky (Nov. 2007)

Who, as a teenager seeking the heady blend of hedonism, old-world sophistication and erotica has not thrilled to the immortal lines of…. “A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread and Thou… Oh Wilderness were Paradise enow!”? I recall my own teenage fascination with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (variously spelled Kayyam) and practiced reciting many of the quatrains until I knew them by heart in hope of becoming a real life Valentino style Desert Sheik. Undoubtedly, it is Edward Fitzgerald’s (1809-1883) brilliant English language translation (first version published in 1859) of The Rubaiyat that won greater immortality for him than any of his own original works. Other English translations have also been published, but Fitzgerald’s still remains the most famous.

The original poet, Omar Khayyam (1044-1123) was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and mystic. His reputation was for a time highly regarded in Iran under the regime of the last Shah but by and large he has been held either in ignominy, contempt, total disregard or intentional oblivion by almost the entire Muslim world, and especially the Arab countries and his native Iran, ruled today by the clique of fanatical mullahs who represent the very targets of bigotry, asceticism and ignorance his verses derided in The Rubaiyat.

Generations of Western beatnicks, existential thinkers, skeptics, cynics, and bon-vivants longing for nothing more than a life of wine women and song have never found a better literary inspiration than the immortal Khayyam. No other work comes close to extolling the all too human natural instincts for sensual and material pleasure although fragments from the Old Testament, notably in Ecclesiastes and The Song of Solomon similarly extol the pleasures of erotic love and even lust (see also 1 Kings 1-4) and wine, and question whether there is anything worth speculating beyond the reality that “… every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor” (Ecclesiastes 3:13).

How did it happen that a work so closely identified with what many would call a “Western” materialist and libertine life style was created in an Islamic environment in the Middle East in the early Middle Ages and seems to openly defy the puritanical and ascetic mind-set of today’s 21st century Sunni and Shi’ite clerics in positions of power throughout much of the region? Can one imagine more polar opposites than Omar Khayyam on the one hand and the Iranian theocracy, al-Qaeda, Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the other?

His Life and Times

Khayyam was born in Nishapur in the province of Khorasan in Northeastern Iran in the latter part of 11th century, two centuries before the region was devastated by Gengis Khan. He was educated at Nishapur and traveled to several reputed institutions of learning, including those at Bukhara, Balkh, Samarkand and Isphahan. He lived in Nishapur and Samarkand for most of his life and died in 1123 CE in Nishapur. The city had substantial minorities of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and rival Muslim sects, especially Sufis – a mystic trend that although formally Sunni, and professing poverty, practiced rites (dance, meditation) labeled as pantheistic by their critics. Traditionally, the region of Khorasan enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and was regarded as a place of refuge for scholars who were regarded as dissidents in Baghdad, the capital of the Caliphate.

It is common for Iranian poets to take their name from their occupation. For example, Attar, “the druggist,” Assar, “the oil presser,” and Khayyam means “tent maker”. Khayyam or at least his father were reputedly to be tent-makers and worked in that trade until the Sultan, Malik Shah, a liberal ruler for his time, elevated Omar to the position of royal astronomer. He had already established a reputation for himself as a first rate mathematician who dabbled in poetry.

The Astronomer Royal

His primary task as the astronomer royal was to reform the muslim calendar. Khayyam spent many years at the Isfahan Observatory and his corrected calendar was adopted in 1079. What we know today is that he succeeded to an unprecedented degree. His calendar ‘Al-Tarikh-al-Jalali’ is superior to the Gregorian calendar and is accurate to within one day in 3770 years. Specifically, he measured the length of the year as 365.24219858156 days, accurate to eleven decimal places. In spite of such a magnificent achievement, it was rejected due to the influence of conservative Muslim clerics.

His achievements in mathematics were no less distinguished. His book ‘Maqalat fi al-Jabr wa al-Muqabila’ on Algebra provided many algebraic equations with geometric proofs and recognized thirteen different forms of cubic equations involving conics. He was the first to develop the binomial theorem and determine binomial coefficients and contributed to the theory of parallel lines. His work on Algebra was through translations read and highly valued throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. He also invented a method for solving cubic equations, a feat that most mathematicians believe to be the highpoint of the discipline in the Middle Ages.

He is generally known as a Persian. However, it has been suggested that his ancestors (from the Arab Khayyami tribe) migrated and settled in Persia. In his youth, Omar Khayyam studied under Imam Mowaffagh of Nishapur who was considered one of the greatest teachers of the region. It is believed that along with him there were two other exceptional students studying under the same teacher about the same time. One was Nezamolmolk, who became the Minister (in Persian: Vazir) to the courts of Alp Arslan Seljuk (1063-1072) and his son Malek Shah Seljuk (1072-1092). And the other was Hassan-e-Sabbah, who later became the leader of the Cult of Assassins (in Persian: Hashashin).

It is from this root word that we derived words in English for assassins and Hashish. Khayyam, Nezamolmolk, and Sabbah are known as Three Fellow Students (in Persian: Seh Yaar-e-Dabbestaani), and according to some legends, those three men had made a pact that whoever made his fortune first would help the other two. Although this may be fanciful, it is nevertheless quite possible that Khayyam may have felt threatened and was influenced against religious bigotry by the fanaticism of the assassin cult.

Khayyam The Poet

He certainly did not win wide acclaim or popularity for his Rubaiyat in his own lifetime nor was he remembered as a literary talent of merit until long after his death and then thanks only to his popularity in the West. His love of wine (a drink which drove sorrow from the heart, as he composed his poetry) and his hedonism so publicly demonstrated in his poetry was audacious for his time. It may also be that his pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in 1092 was a defensive measure to assert a veneer of piety and ward off the attacks of critics. Those apologists uncomfortable with the secular themes and spirit of the poems maintain that Khayyam used the image of wine only as a metaphor for the spiritual intoxication reached by Sufi mystics. Such an interpretation however seems unlikely for an eminent scientist with the achievements Khayyam obtained in astronomy and mathematics.

He returned to his native town of Nishapur and lived there till he died on December 4, 1131. Among the handful of tombs in the outskirts of Nishapur, the most famous one is Khayyam‘s which was built at the Garden of Imamzadeh Mohammad in 1934 during the reign Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941), the last Shah‘s father. The site became a national shrine and every year on May 18th, Iranians celebrated “National Khayyam Day” during the reign of the last shahs.

Khayyam the Philosopher

At Nishapur, Khayyam studied history, philosophy and law and took part in what was a lively debate for a time in 12th century Persia as well as Europe between those who inclined towards the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers, notably Aristotle and the clerical conclusions drawn from the Semitic world of the Bible and Koran. Influenced by the great Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Omar Khayyam found more it more logical to believe in God as a changeless spirit than a corporeal magical being, that the universe was eternal rather than created, and that the soul alone was eternal rather than both the soul and the body. He was clearly at the very extreme edge of what a Muslim society could accept and harmonize with the Muslim clerics of his day.

We should not forget that his fondness, even devotion to wine (“the drink of immortality”) was in harmony with the Pre-Islamic traditions of ancient Persian civilization as manifest in early Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient religion of Sumeria all of which regarded the state of intoxication as a divine sacrament. Moreover, for the ancient Greek and even the Hebrews as attested to by the many wives and concubines of Solomon, flirting and sexual relations with attractive young girls was considered an antidote for old-age! (see 1: Kings 1-4).

The Rubaiyat in World Literature

The term “Rubaiyat” from the number four relates to the verse form and meter that follows the scheme of four lines with the rhyme of : AABA.

VII. Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring The Winter Garment of Repentance fling: The Bird of Time has but a little way To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

VIII. Whether at Naishapur or Babylon, Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run, The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop, The Leaves of Life keeps falling one by one.

XIII. Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

LI “The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Fitzgerald even puts the most atheistic words into the mouth of the muezzin whose job is to call the faithful to prayer….

XXVI Alike for those who for To-day prepare, And those that after some To-morrow stare, A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries “Fools! Your Reward is neither Here nor There!”

Critics with a knowledge of the original language maintain that many of the verses are paraphrased, and several cannot authoritatively be identified with any one of Kayyam’s quatrains at all. Some even go as far as labeling Fitzgerald’s work “The Rubaiyat of Fitz-Omar“, acknowledging the freedom of the translator to use poetic license. This can also be judged from the four different translations Fitzgerald produced in his lifetime and a fifth that was published after his death.

Hundreds of translations and editions

Notable translations, some from the original Persian and some from Fitzgerald’s English version also became popular and are regarded as classics of French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Swedish literature and even in Albanian, Chinese, Welsh, Swahili and Esperanto! Such international recognition proves that Fitzgerald’s work and the message conveyed by his translation struck a deep chord outside of the Islamic world and the Middle East.

No less than Shakespeare, its impact and lasting significance as a source of inspiration for cultural creativity can be judged by the many works that have utilized its verses in titles such as Eugene O’Neill’s drama “Ah, Wilderness!” Agatha Christie’s story, “The Moving Finger.” The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges used the Rubáiyát and its history in an essay, “The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald” (“El Enigma de Edward Fitzgerald”) and in his book “Other Inquisitions” (“Otras Inquisiciones“, 1952). He also referred to it in poems, including “Rubaiyat” in “The Praise of the Shadow” (“Elogio de la Sombra“, 1969), and “Chess” (“Ajedrez“) in “The Maker” (“El Hacedor“, 1960). Borges’ father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, was the author of a translation to Spanish of the Fitzgerald version of the Rubáiyát.

Since the first English translation in 1859, hundreds of editions of the Rubáiyát have appeared in numerous forms and many languages. But their most famous and elaborate manifestation was arranged by Elihu Vedder (1836 – 1923) in 1884. From the moment of their publication, Vedder’s illustrations achieved notoriety and amazing success, selling out the Rubáiyát‘s first edition in Boston in six days. The illustrations were instantly acclaimed as  masterworks of American art. Now, over a hundred years after their first publication, all of Vedder’s designs for the book, except the small publisher’s mark, are available online from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection.

The quatrains have been set to music by the Armenian-American composer Alan Hoyhaness. This work, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Op. 308, utilizes narrator, orchestra, and solo accordion.

In the “History of Western Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell remarks that Omar Khayyam was the only man known to him who was both a distinguished poet and a mathematician. From the exalted to the mundane, the influence of the Rubaiyat has extended from classical literature to popular American T.V. and musical productions. In one story of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Bullwinkle finds the “Ruby Yacht” of Omar Khayyam in the town of Frostbite Falls. In the great musical film production and book of The Music Man, Librarian Marian Paroo angers the mayor’s wife for encouraging her daughter to read a book of “dirty Persian poetry called by her “The Ruby Hat,” The mayor’s wife paraphrases Fitzgerald’s Quatrain VII “People lying out in the woods eating sandwiches, and drinking directly out of jugs with innocent young girls.”

Fitzgerald’s and Avery’s Translation

These verses, which we anglophones have been so familiar with as though they were scripture, are not those of Omar Khayyam, but those of Edward Fitzgerald. Our affection for the rhyme scheme, the alliteration, the meter, the beautiful imagery and gentle pessimism, the many images the words evoke, is for Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald translated this Twelfth Century poetry in the very early years of the Nineteenth Century, seven hundred years after Omar.

Some apologists for Islam have tried to rationalize away the combination of the poet’s open rejection of Muslim fatalism, divine retribution, asceticism and intolerance by claiming that Khayyam was not arguing in favor of hedonism or free will. The lack of popularity of the Arabic translation of the Rubaiyat and the low esteem in which Khayyam is held today in Iran (most contemporary Iranians will claim that he was a famous scientist, or mathematician or astronomer/astrologer and know little or nothing of his poetry). Western travelers to Iran with a knowledge of Farsi asking Iranian students to recite any of the verses of the Rubaiyat from memory invariably come up with a blank wall.

Arguments have been made that Fitzgerald’s translation put words into Omar’s mouth and inevitably lent a western coloration to the verses. It is obvious that this is not so. Rival translations attempting a more literal version of the verses come out no less defiant of traditional Islamic pieties and mores.

Omar was a man who loved wine above all else (a forbidden drug in Islamic cultures, usually consumed among those with a rebellious status in society). He lived within each moment and advised his readers to grasp at whatever pleasures the moment afforded within this physical life, and let those who wished to gamble on eternity in realms unseen do so at their discretion. His philosophy was the well known “Carpe Diem” – Seize the Day and make the most of it, it will never return.

If we were to draw his portrait, it would be modeled after the hero of his verses who cares nothing about the world of the future, only what makes the here and now as pleasant and enjoyable as possible. He was a sensualist and a man of sensuous tastes. We imagine him reclining on a beautifully woven Persian carpet, a voluptuous superstar model (or two) on his lap sharing a flask of wine, curls of smoke drifting upwards from a water pipe, a guitar resting on some luscious fruit and a hoard of gold coins.

The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam (Penguin edition, ISBN 01400595447) translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs is considered to be much more faithful to the original than Fitzgerald’s yet faithful readers of the latter will be both charmed and fascinated at their version, one that expresses materialism and hedonism as wittily and perhaps even more defiantly than Fitzgerald although lacking the perfect AABA rhyme. Compare for example the most famous lines of Fitzgerald….

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, / A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness – / Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”,

Compare Avery’s more literal translation but also a more sophisticated (and provocative) version of the same theme:

If chance supplied a loaf of white bread,
Two casks of wine and a leg of mutton,
In the corner of a garden with a tulip-cheeked girl
There’d be enjoyment no Sultan could outdo.

Or contrast this verse of Fitzgerald’s :

And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help – for It
As impotently moves as you or I.

With Avery‘s:

The good and evil that are in man’s heart,
The joy and sorrow that are our fortune and destiny,
Do not impute them to the wheel of heaven because, in the light of reason,
The wheel is a thousand times more helpless than you.

Peter Avery points out that the ruba’i (quatrain) was the favorite verse form among intellectuals, ….”those philosophers and mystics in eleventh- and twelfth-century Persia who were in some degree non-conformists opposed to religious fanaticism, so that they have often been called Islam’s free-thinkers.”

Iran’s Pre-Islamic Culture and Identity

Iran’s Indo-European Aryan identity looks back on thousands of years of pre-Islamic history with its own indigenous religious tradition (Zoroastrianism), language, art (exquisite Persian miniatures embracing human and animal form as opposed to the austere geometric designs favored by the Arabs) and customs including the high status and ceremonial use of wine. The Islamic conquest of Iran met fierce resistance even after a major Arab victory in 641.

When resistance by the Persians proved futile, it nevertheless did not take long before the new faith was molded in a distinctive Persian variety that transcended the dynastic arguments over the caliphate succession.

It is no wonder that there exists such a tradition of intense Arab and Islamic religious resentment against the ancient Persian Empire as well as the last Shah, a close ally of Israel whom it was not difficult to paint as a reincarnation of Cyrus, the Persian Emperor who restored the Jewish exiles to the Land of Israel following his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. and might well be called a “Zionist.” Persia was indeed the only major power of the ancient world in the Middle East that followed a consistent policy of friendship toward the Jews. Khayyam may be viewed as part of this reassertion of native Persian culture and identity. Shortly before his death, on a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary, President Truman was introduced to the professors there by his close friend Eddie Jacobson who referred to him saying, “this is the man who helped create the State of Israel.” Truman corrected him on the spot.… “What do you mean ‘helped’ to create, I am Cyrus, I am Cyrus!”

Before the Arab conquest, the Sassanian dynasty (224-651 A.D.) established numerous learning centers at which Zoroastrian, Manichean, Christian, and Jewish scholars investigated the fields of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, as well as ancient Iranian and Greek philosophy. However, these accomplishments along with many great monumental works of art were destroyed by the conquering Arabs. Some of the Persian learning centers remained, and changed their language of instruction from Farsi to Arabic, becoming centers of Moslem learning.

Qajar Art

Persian art, epecially painting diverged from the purtitanical prohibitions of Islam and continued to delight in reproducing the human form as well as the natural kingdom of plants and animals. Not even the strictest interpretation of Islam by clerics in Persia could dimish the delight in objects of beauty. Two centuries ago new ambitious rulers appeared who vindicated Khayyam’s world view. They fostered an assertive, self-promotional dynastic art of brilliance, briefly breathing new life onto an ancient culture and casting a gauntlet down to challenge the dominance of Arab fanaticism and puritanical self-denial. Nothing quite like it had ever appeared outside of European culture, glorifying a theme of erotic interludes and encounters.   

The Qajars were Turkish-speaking tribal warlords who came to power in Persia at the end of the 18th century and dominated the country until 1925. The founder of the Qajar dynasty, Aqa Muhammad Khan, may be regarded as a victim of the sadistic and puritanical strain of Arab Islam.  As a young man, he had suffered castration at the hands of tribal enemies. His nephew and appointed heir, Fath Ali Shah, had a populous harem and fathered more than 100 children, producing an entire ruling class of siblings. He had little interest in politics or warfare and strove to live a life of pleasure.

The last Safavid ruler had been defeated in 1722 and several interim dynasties had striven to maintain Persia’s identity and independence. One senses Khayyam’s presence in the many representations of Qajar painting exalting the theme of erotic love and wine with portrayals of concubines staring confidently out at the viewer and inviting him to to join the fun. Qajar art creates courtly images of sensual, exhilarating, extravagant, luxurious settings that beckon the hedonist. It is no wonder that in Victorian times, appreciation of Qajar art in England and the West reached its high point simultaneously with Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat. 

The Antidote

In our own 21st century, such freethinkers and former Muslims as Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn-Warraq, Wafa Sultan and Irshad Manji are in short supply and under constant threat of harassment and assassination. How much more Khayyam is needed today to rally support across the Muslim world to reject the suicidal macabre fascination with death, destruction and the absurd abstract notions that are called “honor” and “revenge” that have been given priority over life, love and beauty. The Rubaiyat is an antidote for the poison of Islamic fundamentalism. Its poetry lives forever even if Omar Kayyam remains a prophet without recognition in his own country.

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